What is a living house? – Part 1

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Throughout our articles and videos, you’ll come across the term “living house”, which is what we call the home that we design. These next few articles will try to explain what that means.

After spending a lot of years talking about building homes and all the various systems that need to be included in them, we started to need a name for the system as a whole. We came across the Living Building Challenge, which is a certification framework for new buildings which looks at all the same elements we include in our designs. The certification is given to operational buildings, so from a purely design perspective it’s not something we are going to get too involved in.

The idea of a Living Building rang true for us however, and so we call our designs Living Houses, to mean much the same thing.

Mission Zero House, Ann Arbour, USA

Good Materials

A living house to us is one which is built well enough to last many generations and to be maintained and upgraded throughout a span of hundreds of years. The materials should not just be durable though, and the construction should not just be suitable for repair and modification. A house should be made from materials which are as close to a natural, found material as possible.


This means low embodied energy, low cost, and above all healthy materials which can be worked by normal people like us. This doesn’t mean we don’t embrace technology and manufactured materials when they’re appropriate of course. It just means we put thought into what products we specify for a home, and design around the best compromises.

Handmade timber frame, Earth rendered walls

Human Centred Design

After materials, we look at the big picture of design, and try to think about how a house will become a home through being lived in. There are many fundamental design choices that can produce a building which is immediately comfortable and human focused, rather than one that’s built to maximise profits for the builder. We think about a Living House as one which has spaces of variable scape and layers of privacy, meaning each room and space will have its own character. The spaces will feel good to be in and will naturally lead people to gather for rowdy events, sit quietly together, or seek privacy as the mood strikes.
Having features, materials, and spaces which reflect and connect to nature and to people is a big part of making a comfortable, inviting home. We strive to design homes which connect people to the world around them, to their family or housemates, and to the broader local community. This is the heart of a Living House.

Sala House entry, by Christopher Alexander

Functional Systems

So we’ve talked about the design and materials of the building, which are essentially static after construction. For the house to really Live through the decades though, it needs to function well and in a way which has a positive impact. This will draw people to it and mean it will be cherished and maintained down the long years.


There are four elements to this functional side of a Living House, which we’ll outline next time.
Until then, be excellent to each other.

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